Apr 17, 2007 3:32pm
'Question Mark' Killer Quietly Seethed With Rage
Tuesday , April 17, 2007
Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman who apparently killed 32 people and himself Monday morning at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., seems to have been a shy, quiet type seething with rage at unspecified tormentors.
Virginia Tech police on Tuesday morning identified Cho, 23, as the man whose body had been found in Norris Hall, site of the worst shooting spree in American history, lying next to two semi-automatic pistols.
He apparently had scrawled the words "ISMAIL AX" on the inside of one arm, according to the Chicago Tribune, which may be a reference to the Islamic account of the Biblical sacrifice of Abraham.
A rambling note left in Cho's dorm room reportedly railed for several pages against "rich kids" and "debauchery" and "deceitful charlatans" on campus, and at one point states, "You caused me to do this."
An English professor said Cho's creative-writing work was so disturbing that he had been referred to on-campus counseling services.
In one class, he refused to speak and signed his name using a question mark. Fellow pupils called him "The Question Mark Kid."
There were also reports that Cho, a senior majoring in English from Centreville, Va., had been taking medication for depression, and had also recently set fire to a dorm room and stalked women.
Identification was delayed nearly 24 hours after the end of the rampage because Cho was carrying no ID, had no police record and had severely damaged his own face when he killed himself.
A positive match was finally made with fingerprints on immigration records.
"He was a loner, and we're having difficulty finding information about him," Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said Tuesday morning.
Cho was born in South Korea on Jan. 18, 1984 and entered the United States in 1992 as a child of 8. He was a permanent resident alien, a "green card" holder entitled to most of the legal rights held by U.S. citizens.
Cho's last hours apparently began with the killings of freshman veterinary student Emily Hilscher, 19, and senior Ryan "Stack" Clark, a resident advisor, at about 7:15 a.m. in the West Ambler Johnston residence hall.
Hilscher's connection to Cho is not clear. The police who responded to 911 calls described the incident as a "domestic dispute," implying that she and the gunman had some sort of relationship, but at least one report said they did not know each other.
"As far as we can tell, wrong place, wrong time," said John W. McCarthy, an administrator for rural Rappahannock County, Va., where Hilscher's family lives, to the Washington Post. "She was a beautiful, smart, great kid."
What seems clear is that Clark, as the most immediate authority, tried to intervene and was killed for his trouble.
Police on Tuesday said one of the guns found with Cho's body had been used to shoot Hilscher and Clark, though he had not been firmly established as their killer.
"It's certainly reasonable to assume that Cho was the shooter in both cases," said Col. Steve Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police.
Cho was gone by the time police arrived at West Ambler Johnston. Officers told the nearly 900 resident students to stay in their rooms, began questioning a mutual acquaintance of Hilscher and Clark and considered the incident essentially over.
In the meantime, Cho had apparently returned to his own dorm room in Harper Hall to re-arm himself and to write a note before heading across campus to Norris Hall, which houses the bulk of Virginia Tech's famed engineering courses.
He was carrying a 9-millimeter Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol, which he had legally bought five weeks earlier at a gun shop in nearby Roanoke, as well as a 22-caliber Walther P22 semi-automatic pistol and several clips of ammunition.
Two law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information had not been announced, said Cho's fingerprints were found on the guns used in both shootings. The serial numbers on the two weapons had been filed off, the officials said.
Cho's hometown of Centreville, Va., lies in an affluent part of Fairfax County, about 30 miles west of Washington, D.C. and is near Washington Dulles International Airport and the Manassas Civil War battlefields.
Cho's parents live in an off-white two-story townhouse on a residential street, and reportedly own a dry-cleaning business. Police visited the house Monday night.
Cho himself attended Fairfax County public schools, graduating from Westfield High School in Chantilly in 2003. He had a sister who attended Princeton.
A photo from the 2002 yearbook, when Cho was a junior, shows an unsmiling, bespectacled boy wearing a plaid flannel shirt over a light-colored T-shirt. He did not have a yearbook photo his senior year, which may simply mean he failed to show up for the photographing.
Neighbor Abdul Shash said the gunman played basketball and wouldn't respond if someone greeted him.
He was "very quiet, always by himself," said Shash.
Those tendencies carried on into college, where Cho apparently made it through nearly four years without making many friends.
Classmates said that on the first day of an introduction to British literature class last year, the 30 or so English students went around and introduced themselves.
When it was Cho's turn, he didn't speak.
The professor looked at the sign-in sheet and, where everyone else had written their names, Cho had written a question mark.
"Is your name, 'Question mark?'" classmate Julie Poole recalled the professor asking.
The young man offered little response.
Cho spent much of that class sitting in the back of the room, wearing a hat and seldom participating. In a small department, Cho distinguished himself for being anonymous.
"He didn't reach out to anyone. He never talked," Poole said. "We just really knew him as the 'question mark kid.'"
A Virginia Tech professor said Cho's work in creative-writing class was so disturbing that he had been referred to the school's counseling service.
Professor Carolyn Rude, chairwoman of the university's English department, said she did not personally know the gunman.
But she said she spoke with Lucinda Roy, the department's director of creative writing, who had Cho in one of her classes and described him as "troubled."
"There was some concern about him," Rude said. "Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things and you never know if it's creative or if they're describing things, if they're imagining things or just how real it might be. But we're all alert to not ignore things like this."
She said Cho was referred to the counseling service, but she said she did not know when, or what the outcome was. Rude refused to release any of his writings or his grades, citing privacy laws.
The Web site The Smoking Gun on Tuesday posted a play Cho allegedly wrote last year. Entitled "Richard McBeef," the violent, possibly darkly comic one-act play concerns an argument between the title character and his 13-year-old stepson, who accuses him of murdering his father and of pedophilia.
The play seems sympathetic to the stepfather, who tries to defend himself in vain against his wife and stepson's accusations. It ends on an ambiguous note, with the stepfather swinging a "deadly blow" at the boy.
• Click here to read the play, which is short on character development but has plenty of foul language and violence.
A Virginia Tech police spokesman said Tuesday Cho had been issued a speeding ticket on April 7 for driving at 44 mph in a 25-mph zone on campus. His court date was set for May 23.
Sources told ABC News that an explanation for the mass murder may be found in the note from Cho's dorm room.
The note apparently begins in the present tense, then over the course of several pages switches to past tense, all the while lashing out at fellow students, according to ABC and the Chicago Tribune.
Sources also told the Tribune about the strange inscription on one of Cho's arms — the words "ISMAIL AX" in red ink.
The reference may be to the Biblical sacrifice of Abraham, in which God commands the patriarch to sacrifice his own son. Abraham begins to comply, but God intervenes at the last moment to save the boy.
In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the son is Isaac, father of the Jewish people; in Islam, it is his older half-brother, Ismail, or Ishmael in Hebrew.
Abraham uses a knife in most versions of the story, but some accounts have him wielding an ax.
A more obscure reference may be to a passage in the Koran referring to Abraham's destruction of pagan idols; in some accounts, he uses an ax to do so.
Cho's actions caused repercussions in the country of his birth. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Tuesday delivered his condolences to the families of the Virginia Tech shooting victims, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Foreign ministry spokesman Cho Byung-se, no presumed relation, said the country was "in shock beyond description" and hoped that the incident would not "stir up racial prejudice or confrontation."